September 28, 2023

NC Board of Education revokes Torchlight Academy’s charter

Torchlight Academy is a K-8 charter school in Raleigh, N.C. The elementary school students are educated at 3211 Bramer Drive.

Torchlight Academy is a K-8 charter school in Raleigh, N.C. The elementary school students are educated at 3211 Bramer Drive.

News & Observer file photo

A long-running Raleigh charter school is being ordered to close amid allegations of falsifying special-education records and violating conflict of interests rules.

The State Board of Education voted 10-1 on Thursday to revoke the charter of Torchlight Academy, a K-8 charter school in Raleigh serving 600 mostly Black and Hispanic students.

School leaders had unsuccessfully argued that their academic accomplishments merited giving them more time to address the issues raised by the state Department of Public Instruction.

The state board cited multiple reasons for revoking the charter:

Violations of laws and regulations including special education laws and federal conflict of interest and self-dealing regulations.

Violations of the charter agreement including failure to provide requested documents and failure to provide adequate oversight and management of school.

Failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management, failure to retain and provide required documentation of expenditures of state and federal monies and failure to comply with other fiscal requirements.

Allowing the ongoing self-dealing and conflicts of interest by Torchlight LLC., the company that manages the school’s day-to-day operations.

“This is not a decision that has been made lightly,” said state board member Amy White, who chairs the committee that oversees charter schools. “A thorough investigation from multiple investigators within the Department of Public Instruction presented information.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson was the lone board member to vote no on Thursday. A spokesman for Robinson said the no vote was in reference to two unrelated contracts that were voted on at the same time as the Torchlight decision.

Torchlight Academy is a K-8 charter school in Raleigh, N.C. The elementary school students are educated at 3211 Bramer Drive. News & Observer file photo News & Observer file photo

Torchlight asked for more time

Torchlight is expected to appeal the decision. On Monday, school leaders told a state advisory board that they’re ready and willing to address the deficiencies to remain open.

“At the end of the day, how will our children be helped if Torchlight Academy is shut down?” Don McQueen, the school’s executive director, told the advisory board. “But how will it be helped if we are corrected and we find common ground to accomplish the mission of working to establish high quality charter schools?”

Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules traditional public schools must follow. There are more than 200 open statewide this school year.

Thursday’s vote represents a dramatic fall for grace for Torchlight, which opened in 1999 and is one of North Carolina’s oldest charter schools. It’s drawn praise over the years for its high academic growth results on state tests, often outperforming the Wake County school system when it comes to results for Black and low-income students.

Before the pandemic, Torchlight had received a “C” performance grade and exceeded growth on state exams for four consecutive years.

“The communities of color that attend Torchlight Academy, primarily Black and Latino, depend on the school to provide them an education and opportunity for achievement that they have not received in traditional public schools here to for,” Stephon Bowens, an attorney representing Torchlight’s board of directors, said Monday.

“Torchlight Academy serves as a beacon of educational opportunity, and the parents of its students depend on it to be available to meet their students’ needs.”

Students from Torchlight Academy in Raleigh wait in line before they take the stage. Hundreds came to a school choice rally held at the N.C. Museum of History on Jan. 23, 2018. The State Board of Education has voted to revoke Torchlight’s charter. Chris Seward [email protected]

Conflict of interest concerns

The showdown with Torchlight had rapidly escalated since December, when the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended sanctioning the school. When the problems weren’t resolved by January, the state board asked for a recommendation on whether to take further action against Torchlight.

The advisory board unanimously recommended Monday revoking the schools’ charter.

Many of the concerns revolved around whether conflict of interest rules were being violated.

Don McQueen is the executive director of both the school and of Torchlight Academy Schools, the company that manages the charter. He’s also executive director of Global Education Resources, which manages Three Rivers Academy in Bertie County, whose charter was revoked in January by the state board.

His wife, Cynthia McQueen, is principal at Torchlight.

Their daughter, Shawntrice Andrews, has worked at Torchlight since 2002 and was the director of the school’s exceptional children program. She’s been accused of altering records of some special-education students, but the school has said it was due to “user error” and not malicious.

DPI said the situation “presented an inherent conflict whereby the McQueens directly benefited from the decisions they made as agents/employees of the school, e.g.,approving payroll, hiring staff, signing contracts/checks, approving purchases, etc..”

Don McQueen had offered to resign as the school’s director. The board of directors also said it would consider finding a new principal and a new management company.

It was too little too late for state leaders.

“I don’t think that we can look at this and say high quality only has to do with whether or not you’re academically performing,” Cheryl Turner, chairwoman of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, said Monday. “High quality has to do with everything that’s entrusted to us as charter school leaders and as people who run charter schools.”

This story was originally published March 3, 2022 12:06 PM.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.